Why Executive Coaching Fails

Why Executive Coaching Fails

By Dr. Merle Riepe, PhD
President, SOLVE

Why Executive Coaching Fails

The most common reasons executive coaching doesn’t work or feels inert.

What does “stuck” mean in an executive coaching context? In my experience, it means the leader (receiver of coaching) has not experienced progress towards their goals in the first three sessions – even something as small as an ‘aha’ moment is a fair expectation in the first session. A couple of sessions without progress is a waste of both time and money. In many cases, coaching results follow a logarithmic curve, and the greatest amount of progress occurs in the first six hours of coaching sessions.

What follows are thirty-three reasons why coaching fails (according to Dr. Burns – the pioneer of the TEAM approach with my adaptations for the coaching context). Most of the obstacles listed can be addressed. Despite what appears to be an intimidating list, most coaching failures are associated with the leader’s hidden ‘resistance’ to change and the coach’s lack of skill addressing it.

On the one hand, a great many leaders will feel ambivalent about change. For example, a leader with low delegation ability may not want to stop being in control and accept others’ work and acknowledge there are multiple pathways to an outcome. Or the leader may want to overcome their fear of conflict without a willingness to engage in a difficult conversation. Or the leader might want a better peer relationship but expect the other person to do the changing.

Unfortunately, most coaches lack the skills to address resistance and, in fact, often make it worse by trying to motivate the leader to change, rather than understand their hesitation to change and discuss it with them. This is one area where the TEAM approach to coaching has a great deal to offer, including dozens of skills coaches can learn to address motivation and resistance.

33 Reasons Why Executive Coaching Fails

Errors at or before the leader intake interview

  1. The leader is just perusing options and feigning interest.
  2. Leader does not buy into the cognitive model that if you change the way you think, you change the way you feel, which changes the way you behave, and, ultimately, defines your reputation.
  3. Incorrect conceptualization of the leader’s problem, whereby the coach uses ineffective techniques.
  4. The leader is not in coaching out of choice.
  5. Failure by the coach to mention the requirement for homework.
  6. Failure to explore the leader’s motivation for coaching.


  1. Failure to recognize other problems which the leader may have.
  2. Failure to assess the leader’s mood and mindset at the onset of each session.


  1. Failure to ask the leader for feedback. As a result, it will not be possible for coaches to understand their level of empathy, helpfulness, and several other relationship dimensions critical to good coaching.
  2. Failure to refine and practice the Five Secrets of Effective Communication and the three advanced communication techniques.
  3. Failure to assess the leader’s resistance.
  4. Failure to recognize and deal with Process Resistance
  5. Failure to recognize and deal with Outcome Resistance.


  1. The leader “cannot” identify any Negative Thoughts.
  2. The leader “cannot” clarify the Negative Thought. The common errors include thoughts describing events or feelings, rhetorical questions, long rambling thoughts, or thoughts consisting of a few words or phrases, like “worthless.”
  3. Overreliance on one coaching method and/or a limited number of techniques.
  4. Incorrect use of techniques. Many of the most powerful techniques, like Interpersonal Exposure, Externalization of Voices, Paradoxical Double Standard, Feared Fantasy, Acceptance Paradox, and many more, require considerable skill and training.
  5. Leader tries to challenge the negative thoughts in their head versus writing them down.
  6. Trying to challenge the negative thoughts of someone else or encouraging them to think more positively.
  7. Not understanding the necessary and sufficient conditions for emotional change when challenging distorted thoughts.
  8. Too much focus on cognitive and/or rational techniques when far more dynamic techniques are needed.
  9. Not recognizing the leader’s negative thoughts are valid and trying to convince the leader to challenge the “distortions” in the valid thoughts.

Other coaching errors

  1. Codependency: addiction to trying to “help,” cheer up the leader, and/or solve some problem the leader has.
  2. Internal need to be “nice” and refusal to hold leaders accountable.
  3. Narcissism: unwilling to be criticized, unwilling to fail, needing to stay in the expert role.
  4. Difficulties forming a warm and vibrant coaching relationship, which can sometimes result from strong (and nearly always unexpressed) dislike of the leader due to bias and/or moralistic superiority.
  5. Commitment to a favored “school” of coaching and/or thinking you are superior to colleagues and have the one “correct” approach.
  6. Failure to make leaders responsible for completing homework.
  7. Reverse hypnosis: the leader hypnotizes the coach into believing things that simply aren’t true.
  8. Unrecognized, unaddressed conflicts with the coach that need to be addressed.
  9. Failure to do Relapse Prevention Training prior to concluding coaching.
  10. The coach may have been taught that change is inherently slow, requiring many years or more. This belief will always function as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  11. Conflicts of interest. The coach may subconsciously want to keep the leader in a long-term “talking” relationship due to emotional or financial needs.

adapted from Dr. David Burns, When Therapy Doesn’t Work – And How to Get Unstuck (for Therapists and Patients)

I appreciate failure because it gives us an opportunity to learn and a measure by which to determine the value of investing in a resource-expending process. In most instances, the opposite of failure in coaching is success – convert these statements to ensure you have a viable coaching arrangement.